China’s Space Ambitions Shrouded in Mystery

While China was disputing over contested land this year, it was trekking territory on another frontier: outer space.

China recently completed its longest space mission with the safe return of the Shengzou-11 astronauts. The country also launched a new space lab module, put a new spaceport into operation, and erected the world’s largest radio telescope – which theoretically may open channels of communication with intelligent beings beyond the planet Earth.

It was undoubtedly a very successful year for the country’s space program, but where does China have its sights set next? The answer is, the moon. China plans to launch Chang’e 5 during the second half of 2017 atop a Long March-5 rocket aimed at the moon. Its mission is to collect several pounds of lunar samples before hurling the specimens back to Earth–  a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the former Soviet Union did so in 1975. And in 2018, China plans to launch a lander to the far side of the moon – a mysterious region yet untouched by any country.

“China is clearly moving closer and closer to being able to achieve the long-planned culmination of ‘Project 921,’ a large, permanently crewed space station,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “Once that is achieved, I would not be at all surprised by an official announcement of a human mission to the moon.”

In fact, the Shenzou and Chang’e programs have set the path to the moon. During the Shenzhou-11 mission, crew members Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong lived within the Tiangong-2 space lab where they spent most of their time honing the skills necessary to build China’s first large space station, which is set to go operational in 2020. It would go live just as the International Space Station goes into retirement – a scenario space exploration experts have been keeping a diligent eye on.

In fact, some experts say these developments may spark another space race like the one fought between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the 1960s.

“Our celestial satellite is a strategic asset, says Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “If China’s interest in the moon rejuvenates our own, the U.S. has the opportunity to stimulate private sector jobs while expanding humanity beyond the Earth, he adds. “Next year China will attempt something only the former Soviet Union has done and the United States has not yet managed to do, and that is robotically returning samples from a planetary surface.” Such samples, from an unexplored part of the lunar surface, says Neal, “will have a huge impact on lunar science … but will U.S. scientists be allowed to study these?”